“What Did You Say!” Time to Talk About Unthinking Ageism?

We are caring people, yet we  find it so hard to realise when our kindly meant words are actually Ageist.  Why?

The negative version of ageing is so ingrained in our culture, that we don’t notice when we are tapping into it.  A bit like when I was a child and we thought nothing of having that Nigger Minstrel show on BBC ( renamed as the Black and White minstrels. Very popular.)

Lets take the simplest of examples.  Common compliments.

You don’t look your age “     “You look great for your age!”

“ You look too young to be that age”  

 “80! But you are still young at heart”

All meant well aren’t they?  That is until you think about what they are actually saying.

”Good for your age. . .”  Immediately suggests that underneath they believe your actual age is a bad place to be!  Why didn’t they just say “ You are looking good”?

Using “Young” as a judgement standard is the same isn’t it?  It is implying that being young is the good thing. And clearly implies that being old is not OK, not desirable.


Comments like this have their base in deeply hidden assumptions haven’t they?Even worse, they are assuming that I think it too……that I might be ashamed of being old and need reassuring!  And they are telling me, happily, quite obliviously, that everyone thinks:

             “Being old like you is a bad thing, isn’t it?”


How do you reply to a backhanded compliment like that!

How do I tell my lovely friend, hairdresser, shop assistant that what they have  just said is actually unacceptable, even unkind?  It is in effect seriously Ageist!

A polite “Thank you” ?  But that is me agreeing with them. Me colluding with Ageism!

Maybe try a gentle hint and say politely, that I think I don’t look different from most 75 year olds today.  Or try dismissing it with “Age is just a number” and  “We are all looking pretty good today, enjoying life  etc.”

But that doesn’t  get people woke to the  real issue.  A bit more challenge is needed.

Ashton Applewhite suggests we  try “Oh! What do you think someone my age should look like.”  Of course expecting an embarrassed answer…

I have tried openly challenging people who I think will understand why I am doing so.  Done kindly, with a laugh, it is still a shock to them. One was a participant at a conference on Ageing.  She knew! But the ‘compliment’ had still come out,   automatically.  She was horrified! Couldn’t  believe she had said it.

So how are we going to stop it? How do we get people thinking before they speak?

How do we raise awareness of this Ageism lurking in our everyday culture?

How do we alert everyone?  Similar phrases, like these are so normal, so common, so kindly meant as compliments, even expected, arent they?

Yet the majority of us have yet to wake up and realise that underlying  them is this hidden implication that ageing and being old is bad thing.

It is not acceptable is it!

It isn’t even true in 2020.


Today’s later years are the opposite!

But people are only just now waking up to that. And the Unthinking Ageism trap  continues to catch us out.


How should we do it. How best to stop unintended Ageism in our language and culture?

We could be really brutal, couldn’t we?   Call it out? 

How about asking the public generally

Do you realise that when you say ‘ You don’t look your age’ it is the equivalent of  complementing a gay person by telling them that they don’t look gay!” ?    Or even congratulating a person of colour on looking nearly white….

(Well think about it.  It is what we are doing isn’t it?)

There is rightly a current movement for challenging Ageism. 

Age Discrimination and Age Unfriendly policies are being identified. Obvious, intended and casual Ageism of this type must be picked up on. And silly Unthinkingly Ageist media stories.

But these polite kind of remarks we are discussing are subtly different,  unintentional.  Probably not meant in that way  at all. We need a softer approach don’t we?

We certainly should learn to raise an eyebrow and try a humorous challenge when it happens.  A drip drip approach.

For example we might adopt a standard reply to anyone who adds “ For your age” to a compliment.  Something like “ Just ‘great and good ‘ will do. Thanks. Numbers are irrelevant to people like me aren’t they? Could even sound Ageist?”

The other isms, Racism, Homophobia  etc where the challenge is for acceptance and about discrimination against certain groups of people are not the same are they?

Ageing is normal and for everyone.  If we are lucky, we will all get old.

Ageism is an issue for us all.

We need care therefore to make sure we don’t have any kind of Us/Them campaign.

We are all in it together.  Our society has created an insidious picture of later years as a time of decline and decay.  And that has slid firmly into our unconscious.

We have missed out, lost even, what other cultures and eras know and knew. That the maturity of later years is a special gift, different from any other stage in our lives. A time of self realisation, life experience to use, a deeper enjoyment of life and a fresh view of what constitutes happiness. Bonus years!  And now with modern health care most of us have that active happy period significantly extended.

That it has happened is not yet really understood.  That so many of the myths about old age no longer apply hasn’t really dawned. The wrinkly hands images still permeate the media.

Why this?           When it could be this?  (An older regular at my nail shop..)

Business are still either ignoring  or patronising this whole new demography.


The answer has to be education, doesn’t it? A steady subtle alerting, feed of fresh thinking, new realistic images of later years, new words and phrases for us all to use …and sink into our unconscious! Then settle into our culture.

But this isn’t a Government legislative issue is it?  It is a social change of beliefs , values and ideas.  A tide of change and acceptance until a new normal appears.

One of the delights of being old is the looking back. I remember Homosexuality being a crime, and suicide and abortion.  And when as a divorcee I could not be prescribed the pill…only for the married. In my childhood illegitimacy / bastardy led to social ostracism. Living together unmarried was certainly not OK. Nor, in my village, was hanging out your washing on a Sunday!

We have challenged and changed all these ideas in my life time.

I am sure there is time to see one more!


Let’s make 2020 the year it takes off.


Let’s all be open, honest, helpfully alerting each other to the cliche words. To the compliments that are no longer OK.

Raise public awareness of the Unthinking Ageism that permeates today’s world….and all our futures if we don’t sort it.

And here is the key challenge!  

It is Older people themselves who have a major part to play in changing this thinking. They are the only ones who really understand!

We, all of us, need to do it on two levels :

First we must stop   Self  Ageism.

We need to learn to recognise and stop hearing the negatives we ourselves  have absorbed!  Realise what damage you do to yourself! Dont  judge yourself by someone’s else’s view of old age!

Understand the problem and become  Age Proud out loud.  

Be an Ambassador.  Take the fear out of ageing for the next generation. Tell them the good news about the pleasure of discovering real maturity and that happiness peaks at 73!

Second, and in my personal view the most effective. Laugh at Ageism, joke about it. Humour wins many battles.  

Subtly shift to the idea that being Ageist is rather silly. Allow people to laugh at a slip of the tongue, but feel a bit stupid.

We don’t need to, start the PC type of challenge. Too negative.   But an effective weapon is to grow the idea that ‘Only losers are Ageist’  A bit behind trend?  Haven’t yet understood the full scope of a human life, have they? ‘Missing out on the next big thing aren’t you?’

Older people need to show public pride.  Say it, out loud.

Real happy maturity comes with age…..but don’t worry, you will get there too”



















  1. January 4, 2020 / 7:47 am

    With age, dementia pokes its ugly head. I have just been diagnosed with dementia: Alzheimer and Vascular. These words raise so much fear that you are told not to mention it in public and even to your friends. This is such a challenge for me after fighting against ageism for the last 25 years. I have lost some memory, sense of direction and the capacity to deal with too much stimulation. Otherwise I do still think, and I have acquired a sense of humour and a philosophical approach to end of life. Yet my friends who know about the diagnosis do not mention it again. We must talk about the first stages of dementia and hear what there is to learn instead of being paralysed with fear of the last stages of this illness.

    • Lynda
      January 6, 2020 / 5:34 pm

      So very sorry to hear about your diagnosis and sad that ignorance and fear has caused your friends to avoid the topic. You sound like you are dealing with it well and you may find that your AD Soc can support you to live as well as you can with the condition.

  2. January 4, 2020 / 11:38 am

    DRNM – dearreadingnichemind of GRANMAWILLIAMS

    Oh what fun it is to read your intensive blog posts.

    I am an 80+ female since May 2019 and do enjoy
    this high age phase day by day

    I never wanted nor expected to be older than Mamma 70 and Pappa 76 and
    regret it immensely that they are only in my genes to realize what
    a blesssing and fun high age is

    I do not experience lasting troubles with OTHERS of any age

    I am a full time working publishing lady and have on my website 30 books
    including 4 books about high agers or written by high agers

    The latest is DIGIBOOK # 28 by most energetic Mrs Jennie Levick
    who is an 81+ Neuroreflexologistess with a huge family and friend clan

    One is DIGIBOOK …# 2 by 122010 > my own study report memories written
    deliberately in writing as reading exercise for
    my B.A. in Publishing Media in Oxford Brookes University and
    getting the DEGREE in 2012…at age 73!

    I do not do grumpy but happy with a gr8ful smile from


  3. Lynda
    January 6, 2020 / 5:43 pm

    A very interesting read which must make us all reflect on the way in which we have internalised so many of the negative stereotypes. And yet………at 67 I do find myself thinking that I look pretty good ‘for an old one!’ I feel I must acknowledge the passing years which inevitably have had an effect on my face & body. I know I’m vain in this respect! Perhaps I’m not yet old enough to really appreciate ageing properly. I’m not trying to recapture my youth but when I look at old photos I realise that I was simply unaware at the time of how lovely we all were ! They say that ‘youth is wasted on the young’ and that’s rather how I feel now. I know I must work to keep myself fit and healthy but as my sister who is a nurse says -‘You can’t outrun your genes’ ! Well done with your campaign, we really need it.

  4. January 11, 2020 / 8:06 pm

    Thanks for yet another powerful “thought bomb.”

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